It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Review: The Myths of Innovation

A brief review of a short book. I haven’t been writing much due to a deluge of work, but I promised myself I’d try and review each book I read as soon as I finished reading it, not weeks later.

Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation is a brief guide to the history of innovation. It is a well researched look at how innovations really happen and the environments and contexts surrounding people praised as innovators. I suspect some of this is not news to people who worked in the dot-com boom or spent time in an R&D lab, but even those people would benefit from the structural interpretation Berkun gives to those environments.

Where this book falls short, in my opinion, is a lack of practical advice for people who need help fostering innovation in their departments or companies. It’s easy to say, “here’s how innovative organizations operate”, the challenge is in learning how to change your organization and convince management that there will be a benefit to the change. I can tell my boss about innovative companies until I’m blue in the face, but unless I can describe a plan with practical changes, my boss probably isn’t going to support me. If Berkun has experience helping companies change and become more innovative, I wish he’d revise this book with some real-world examples of what works and what doesn’t.

It’s a quick read at ~150 pages and there is a useful bibliography and guide to other books on the subject of innovation and creativity and certainly worth reading the next time you have a short flight or a layover.

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posted by jet at 13:38  

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Self-Directed Summer Program in Design

That sounds pretty sexy — I think that’s how I’ll describe what I’m doing this summer. Ok, I’m really just going to catch up on a bunch of reading, do some writing, practice drawing, and set up some metalworking equipment so I can make some things. But with a sexy title like that, my summer plans sound much better.

I took a couple of weeks to decompress for school but I need to get back into the study groove. I have a lot of real work (the stuff that pays) to do, but I’m going to try and stick to a self-study schedule for design, security and Japanese in my free time.

My books on the “In” pile so far fall into two piles, design and security.

In the design pile:

  • Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
  • Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature
  • What Things Do — I haven’t read much design theory, so I might spread this out over several weeks so that it can soak in
  • The Complete Japanese Joinery
  • Industrial Strength Design ("What do you mean it’s not about EBM and stompy boots?")
  • Universal Principles of Design

The stack of security books is big enough that I might end up skimming many of them:

  • Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization
  • Physical Device Security
  • Reversing
  • Building Secure Software
  • Silence on the Wire
  • Security Warrior (could they have come up with more leet title?)

I’m also considering re-reading some of the classics that I read in school the first time around: Alexander’s design books, Foucault’s History of Science, that sort of thing. It’ll be interesting to see how much my worldly experience changes what I get out of the canon.

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posted by jet at 11:40  

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Review: _designing for interaction_, Dan Saffer

[Have to make this a brief review, as it’s not required for school nor work.]

In _designing for interaction_, Dan Saffer gives a concise and well-written introduction to the relatively new discipline of interaction design. This is the sort of book I’d love to see on a first-year design class reading list or in the careers section of a high school library. It’s also the sort of book that I’d give to any boss of mine that questioned the need to hire an outside designer for a project. (“Here, read this, then tell me if you still want to let engineering do everything on their own.”)

Saffer uses modern, popular technology (TiVo DVRs, mobile phones, web sites) as examples for interaction design or to illustrate his ideas. There are also a number of brief interviews with notables in the field giving their take on different design issues and concepts. These examples and interviews make the book more friendly and the reading experience is more enjoyable than the typical academic text.

Content is not sacrificed for accessibility nor is it dumbed-down for the non-designer. The basic framework and terminology of interaction design (and even design in general) are laid out in an easy to understand way. Terms or practices that might be unfamiliar to someone outside of design are clearly defined using plain English instead of design speak or computer jargon. Someone couldn’t go out and become a designer the day after reading this book but they would learn enough to lead them to further investigate interaction design as a career or to be able to make better decisions when hiring a designer or design firm.

designing for interaction, web site
O Danny Boy, Dan Saffer’s design blog

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posted by jet at 07:54  

Friday, April 7, 2006

Thoughts on Shaping Things

I’ve been trying to categorize Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things. Is it a design manifesto? A well-informed rant? A bit of SF prognostication based on a basic understanding of technology and comprehensive knowledge of how the world works?

Or does its effect on the reader matter more than which Dewey decimal digits get taped to the spine? Shaping Things gave me a well-needed kick in the head and got me thinking about some realities of ubiquitous computing in the near future.

When I think about past predictions for life in the age of omnipresent computing power — wearable PCs, portable VR, “smart”-whatevers — I’m reminded of why so much science fiction is utter drek. Instead of reaching out and thinking about how the future of technology will change our current life, too many authors take our current (or past) culture and spackle on future techno doodads without thinking about how that tech would actually change everyday life. (You know what I’m talking about: “It’s WWII, but with hover-tanks and grav-guns” or “It’s urban gang warfare in the gritty streets of the astroid belt.”)

The high tech business world suffers from the same sort of limited creativity, but I think it’s even more fundamentally ingrained in the culture and, unfortunately, rewarded more often than it is punished.

There’s a extended metaphor about a business cutting a path through a dense jungle. The workers cut down trees; the managers make sure the workers have sharp machetes and enough food and water and are cutting where they are supposed to be cutting; the leader is out climbing trees and telling the managers which way to go.

The problem is that I first heard that in a project management seminar for software development. When’s the last time anyone cleared a road through a forest with hand-tools and people climbing up trees? Why on earth is this being used as a metaphor for project management in a software development environment? How can one prognosticate about the effects of near-future technology on our life while still mired in 19th century management theory?

This is where I think Sterling’s experience in writing science fiction pays off in the design world. He’s able to leap ahead from what we have now based on what could be and not gussy up the present (or the recent past) in skiffy doodads and present it as THE WORLD OF THE FUTURE!.

Pat Cadigan has this to say:

“One of my favorite examples is people could have probably predicted a road system from the invention of the automobile and you might have been able to predict parking lots and difficulty in finding parking spaces, but you probably would not have necessarily predicted drive-in movie theaters, or making out in the back seat and people becoming parents in the back seat. “

This is the sort of thing Sterling is up to in Shaping Things: given the automobile and the motion picture, predict the drive-in. If not the drive-in, then at least driving school safety films, using cars as mount points for movie cameras, or at least POV movies like “Rendezvous”.

(Note: I’m going to handwave over a fair amount of the book and focus on the bit that kicked me in the head: the formal definition of the “spime”. There’s a lot of words about how we get to spimes, who handles spimes, what they do in the context of a future culture and what comes after, but I’ll leave that for some other time.)

A spime is an object capable of collecting information about its interaction with the world, track its own metahistory, and make that information available in a form useful to others. Sterling uses a familiar, ancient and decided non-technological object as the basis for his future spime: a wine bottle. He also spends a lot of time telling us how we got to spimes, what might follow, and how culture will change to adapt to these new inventions but that’s part of the stuff I’m handwaving over.

Whether or not we call these new objects “spimes”, “blobjects” or some other self-consciously coined word, the base concept is the same: a smart object that can observe its surroundings; collect, filter and store environmental data; report that data and even make decisions. This is a huge step forward in how we perceive the world and how it operates. Yes, it’s a huge step forward in the ability of conglomcos to refine their marketing messages but it’s also a huge step forward in tracking where garbage actually comes from and goes, finding inefficiencies in transportation (“my package sat how long on a loading dock in the rain?”), and learning the secret lives of everyday objects that most of us ignore.

Again we have the problem of “predict the drive-in”, but using the what-if tactics of science fiction in an iterative method might get us a bit further than the history-based product planning and market prediction routines from the past century used by the corporate world. We have a little experience of how simple information flow and collection can change the political, business and media landscapes and we can iterate on that for the next level of granularity with objects helping us manage those data flows.

For my part, this kick in the head has lead to my documenting “proto-spimes” in an effort to get my head around what a real spime might actually look like some day. Once I’ve got a few of those written up I’ll be able to go back and see what was wrong with the first and what they all have in common, re-read Shaping Things, then let it sink in again.

So be it manifesto, rant or design document, Shaping Things achieves the goal of kicking people (or at least me) in the head and getting them to think about the immediate future.

I only have one complaint about Shaping Things and it is a minor one: I do not like the layout nor the color selections used in the book. I’m not color blind but I did read most of it in low light on airplanes, conditions for which the book was apparently not designed. The combination of glossy paper and low-contrast colors made it more difficult to read than it should have been.

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posted by jet at 23:16  

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design, Galen Cranz

I picked this up at a used bookstore because it was only a couple of bucks and it was something other than another boring picture book of beautiful but uncomfortable furniture that I can’t afford and that nobody will want to sit upon. What I was looking for: an academic discussion of the history of chairs that would teach me the right “design words” to use in class or when talking to designers. What I found: an excellent history of things to sit upon, the social issues around why we sit, and the sorry mess we’ve gotten ourselves into by sitting on chairs for far too many hours a day during the past century or so.

Cranz — a Professor of Architecture at Berkeley — boils down the history of chairs, sitting, and ergonomics in plain terms that can be understood by the lay person. This history helps explain the ergonomic nightmare we live in today and suggestions on ways we can start to improve our situation.

I’ve always been (too?) willing to question elements of the world I live in, however where I sit has never been on my list of things to question. I don’t like sitting in chairs nor sitting up straight; I prefer to lounge, lie down or sit on the floor while reading, watching TV and even when doing metal work or fabrication. While this leads to interesting discussions at home about who is hogging the couch or why there are magazines spread all over the floor, it’s never led to my thinking about why I try so hard to avoid sitting in chairs. My job requires me to sit for extended periods of time (and I have worker’s comp RSI receipts to prove it) but when I’m doing something I want to do, I’m often standing at a workbench, sitting on a stool with rollers or squatting on the floor.

A few years ago I accidentally started studying Japanese wood and metal working techniques while studying Japanese history and modern Japanese design. One of things that surprised me was the number of modern Japanese craftsmen who to this day sit on the floor while doing rather difficult labor. Even an episode of Discovery’s Biker Build-Off showed the Japanese bike firm Zero Engineering working the way Japanese metalworks worked for centuries: sitting on the floor.

As it turns out, sitting in chairs at a workbench or table is the odd way of doing things in the big historical picture. Until the industrial age, plenty of people sat on floors or stood while working. If the average person was (is) lucky enough to have something upon which to sit, it was likely a bed, bench or simple stool without a back to lean against.

Not only did The Chair open my eyes to the “pro-chair” Western bias that we have sold to ourselves and other cultures, it also helped me understand just how much of modern chairs is form and how little is function. I never really understood why the really expensive designer chairs we had at work or the fancy chairs my friends bought were so uncomfortable. The simple fact of the matter is, they’re supposed to look good, not be useful chairs. These chairs were not furniture, they were art. Now there’s nothing wrong with filling your house with expensive art, but expecting your guests to sit on the art and be uncomfortable is another matter entirely.

The act of sitting in a chair, especially for extended periods of our waking hours, is a modern invention and something our bodies were not designed to do. We did not evolve sitting in chairs, they were thrust upon us (or us upon them) over the period of a few short centuries. This is stating the obvious, but the unstated obvious is that our bodies don’t like it one bit. We are suffering many health problems related to chairs and the sedentary lifestyle they encourage: back and neck pains, varicose veins, RSI injuries and so on. Making matters worse is the use of chairs that are picked not for their functionality or long-term effects on the human body, but for their form and cost.

The solutions are simple: stop sitting, sit differently or at least minimize the amount of time spent sitting. Solutions like these are easy to say but not easy to implement in a chair-based culture that is focused on short-term benefits . The average American is probably not used to sitting on a backless chair for hours on end or standing while working at their computer. “Perching”, or making a tripod of your legs and a chair, is also going to take some getting used to for many people. Sitting in chairs has destroyed our muscle tone and posture so much that what should be a simple task — standing or sitting up straight without any sort of support — is difficult for most people. The next time you’re in a “waiting” situation, in a doctor’s room or waiting on take-out at a restaurant, try standing instead of sitting and see how long you last.

Another problem facing a change in how we sit is the relationship between employer and employee. Some of these solutions — which would require spending as much on an employee’s chair as you do on their computer if you expect them to sit for several hours a day — are not going to go over well with the business community. I’ve done facilities management consulting a few times, and it’s amazing how much a company will spend on a computer that will be replaced in a year and how little they will spend on a chair and desk they expect to last for a decade. Spending $300 on an office chair when there’s one available for $250 requires extensive justification, while buying everyone a new PC every year for $1000 is obviously a good decision. Complicating matters, many employers will not let employees bring their own chairs to use at work, so an employee who’d rather perch or stand can’t even pay for it out of their own pocket.

Unlike many books I’ve read in the past few years, The Chair has made a quick and positive difference in my every day life. I sold my Aeron and have a Hag Capisco (designed for “perching” not “sitting”) on order. I bought a cheap-but-comfortable task chair in the meanwhile, ripped the arms off and sit forward on the seat with my feet elevated enough to take the weight off of my thighs. In the few months I’ve been working with better posture, I’ve noticed that I can stand for longer periods of time, that I don’t have achy legs after working all day and that my infrequent migraines and frequent neck-aches have all but disappeared.

I think the best possible thing I can say about Cranz’s The Chair is that it’s one of the few books I’ve ever bought extra copies of to give to co-workers and friends.

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TeX Dorkery:

Address = {500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110},
Author = {CRANZ, Galen},
Edition = {Softcover},
Isbn = {0-393-31955-5pbk},
Keywords = {chair design},
Publisher = {W. W. Norton},
Title = {The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design},
Url = {},
Year = {2000}}

posted by jet at 23:34  
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